Monday, December 1, 2008


I finished Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy last night, then was scandalized to read, a few minutes ago, that the US version of the trilogy's final book, The Amber Spyglass, underwent censorship by US publishers to remove passages about the female protagonist's budding sexuality. How silly.

The series deserves a lengthy examination, but I can't offer one just yet. I can say, however, that the books were well written, though the trilogy wasn't quite as emotionally engaging as the Harry Potter heptalogy. This might be a simple consequence of the Big Ideas that Pullman is wrestling with, not least of which is the need to overthrow divine authority in favor of a more humanistic, existentialist approach to life.

The trilogy contains little hints of Buddhism (e.g., every human being is particulate, as is consciousness itself), but is otherwise exactly what the critics have said it was: a reworking or outright subversion of the story in Milton's Paradise Lost, with an infusion of Gnosticism (Pullman's "Authority" sounds a lot like the Gnostic Demiurge at times).

Wikipedia describes Pullman's trilogy as part of the "steampunk" subgenre of science fiction. Steampunk is retro cyberpunk: imagine 1860s-era technology and civilization giving birth to Rube Goldberg contraptions that allow hyperspace travel and man-machine fusions. The His Dark Materials story definitely straddles the borderline between sci-fi and fantasy; it was, at times, reminiscent of a Tom Robbins novel, but without all the sex and drugs.

If I didn't like Pullman's trilogy quite as much as Rowling's work, it's probably because the final book, hewing to its "multiverse" theme, gets ontologically messy. Once you've reached a point where doors between universes have opened into each other, where angels are fighting angels, ghosts are fighting Spectres (children of the Abyss), humans are fighting the angel Metatron, and armored polar bears are rampaging through it all, you may find it a bit hard to suspend disbelief. Sure, sure: it's a children's book, for God's sakes. I know. But still.

I'll write more on this when I have time and can better organize my thoughts. For now, I'll finish this post by recommending the series.


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